The debate: is being 'always on' bad for business?

25 October 2016

Author: Criselda Diala-McBride


The debate: is being 'always on' bad for business?

Ultra-connected employees may keep you competitive, but some experts warn that could prove counter-productive in the long run

Learn how to manage distractions
 
The increasing demands of smartphones and other mobile technology shouldn't be seen as the enemy. They can, in fact, save us significant time and provide great flexibility. It is our own inability to manage these distractions that is really at fault, leading to longer working hours and less work-life balance.
 
We often think that by juggling our phone and emails while finishing a report and eating lunch at our desks, we are getting more done. Yet research unequivocally shows that multitasking damages our productivity. We feel busier, but we are doing less and doing it less well. Our brains are just not designed to handle deliberate thinking work in parallel. Rather, the brain switches between tasks, taking up to 15 minutes to reconnect to the main task at hand when distracted by a WhatsApp message or pop-up email reminder.
 
However, all this is not the fault of new technology but the product of our ferocious desire to stay permanently connected. The 'always on' culture needs to be managed by our own productivity preferences and then respected by the leadership team. If I prefer to clear my inbox quietly at 5am, it shouldn't mean replies are expected before normal working hours. It is how we manage the distractions, set boundaries and then leverage technology that will enable us to win in a modern workplace.
 
Hazel Jackson, CEO, Biz Group
 
It opens opportunities for businesses and staff
 
Digital transformation is changing the way we live and work. It reaches deep into society, schools, homes, the workplace and all the public spaces in between as people, information and communications become increasingly mobile.
 
This 'always on' culture is changing the workplace - in fact, work is no longer a place - and creating new flexibility and options, from flexi-hours to remote working. These elements are especially supportive of working mothers. But it goes beyond this.
 
Business is increasingly international and globally integrated, embracing both collaboration and competition; teams are increasingly multicultural and working within more dispersed organisations, crossing time zones and harnessing the benefits of collaborative tools and software, from video conferencing to file sharing. Staying connected flexibly opens up new opportunities for business and employees.
 
Technology is changing the way executive education is accessed, enabling a flexible, blended learning experience, combining online tools with face-to-face contact. Without these tools, professionals would not be able to combine their work responsibilities with family commitments and studies.
 
Always being connected gives us the freedom to choose where, when and how we are 'on' - whether it's for work, family or education. But we are still learning how to manage this and it is important sometimes to 'disconnect to connect' - disconnect from work to reconnect with self and family.
 
Randa Bessiso, Director, Manchester Business School Middle East
 
Employers are more worried by 'always on' than their employees
 
The culture that requires employees to stay connected to their mobile devices has been increasing as the demands of businesses evolve. This places more emphasis on the need to maintain a positive work-life balance to avoid a negative impact not only on employees' productivity, but also on their overall health and wellbeing.
 
It's therefore paramount that organisations understand the risks associated with such behaviours so that they do not compromise the workplace's performance and overall outcomes.
 
By comparing employers' responses in the latest Staying@Work Survey with employees' views in Willis Towers Watson's Global Benefit Attitudes Survey, we found noticeable differences of opinion on the primary causes of work-related stress.
 
Employers believe the impact of the 'always on' culture on their employees is the third leading cause of stress. But employees think the expanding use of technological devices during non-working hours has the least influence on stress, while company culture and rewards were mentioned as the most common causes of stress. So it seems that many employees embrace the flexibility that mobile devices deliver, enabling them to work where and when they want, and employers overestimate the impact of this element.
 
It is a good thing that organisations are becoming more aware of this matter, and it is still crucial to underline the importance of employers having the ability to mitigate the causes of workplace stress and to educate employees on the best ways to manage it and improve resilience.
 
Even though employees don't regard the expanding use of mobile devices as a leading stress factor, employers must monitor individuals closely to ensure they are not 'burning out'. Organisations must always understand their employees' needs, to create support programmes that will maintain and improve their health and wellbeing.
 
Steve Clements, Director of health and group benefits, Willis Towers Watson
 
Home life can become a casualty
 
The separation of work and home activity has become ever-more difficult to maintain with the increasing penetration of information and communications technology (ICT) into everyday life, particularly with the development of mobile communications technology (MCT).
 
Continuous access to mobile devices may lead to confusion between work and home roles. This is because both work and home domains are always accessible and work may spill into evenings, nights and weekends.
 
My previous research on this topic highlighted expressions from respondents such as 'being chained to work', 'becoming a slave to your work', 'being on call 24 hours' and 'being always tempted to work', which express how people view the nature of their jobs. 'Switching off' from work has become a genuine challenge.
 
Technology has allowed for more flexibility, which may help mothers with their work. But then again, it is still difficult for them to work from home and look after their children. In fact, some women may find it necessary to leave the house so that they can concentrate on their work.
 
The use of ICT/MCT may allow workers to maintain a degree of order in their lives, but it may also lead to them experiencing disorder, with work and home potentially seeping into, invading or even overwhelming each other.
 
Dr Mona Mustafa, Associate professor, faculty of business and management, University of Wollongong, Dubai